Rockingham Park Will Be Sold for Development

In absence of casino gambling, New Hampshire track appears to be at the finish line.

Rockingham Park, the eighth oldest Thoroughbred track in the country, has reached the finish line.

President and general manager Ed Callahan confirmed March 24 that the ownership group has put the track on the market and international commercial broker Newmark, Grubb, Knight and Frank is handling the sale of the remaining 120 acres of the property. Fifty acres comprising most of what was the stable area were subdivided and sold to a local developer last year.

The decision of Rockingham's ownership group to sell the track for real estate development ends all hope that live Thoroughbred racing could return to the track, which was long ago known as "Little Saratoga" for the top quality of horses, jockeys, and stables that competed there.

Rockingham has not hosted a live Thoroughbred meet since 2002. The following year it switched to harness racing only, but the Standardbred meets also ended after the 2009 season.

For the past two decades, Rockingham management had held out hope of getting favorable casino gambling passed in New Hampshire. While different versions of legislation were able to make it through the state Senate, the House of Representatives shot down every bill when it came to the floor for a vote.

Since 1973, the House has defeated more than 60 expanded gambling bills, according to "The Journal of the House."

Though another casino bill authorizing one full casino at Rockingham was introduced in the Senate this session, it was tabled when the votes for passage were not there. Even though later amended to allow the lone casino to be located anywhere in the state and to require a competitive bidding process for the license, the bill was tabled a second time.

March 24 was the final day for passage in the Senate. The bill was taken off the table but was rejected on a 13-11 vote. Even if the bill had been sent to the House, it faced certain doom there.

"It's very sad to see Rockingham Park go, but that has been a foregone conclusion for some time," said Lou Raffetto, the consultant to the New England Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "Now more than ever the New England horsemen have to stay focused on our future in Massachusetts."

Massachusetts passed an expanded gambling law in 2011 calling for the establishment of up to three full casinos and a single slot machine parlor, and the legislation created the Race Horse Development Fund to funnel millions of dollars annually to purses, breeders, and backstretch welfare programs.

The advent of casino gambling in Massachusetts, and especially the future $2 billion Wynn Resorts Boston Harbor to be located only 20 miles from Rockingham, helped seal the track's fate.

Had casino gambling been authorized in New Hampshire, Millennium Gaming of Las Vegas was prepared to execute its option to buy the track. Millennium co-owner and co-chief executive officer William Wortman, who owns a personal 20% ownership stake in the track, said repeatedly that he wanted to restore live Thoroughbred racing as part of the proposed $750 million casino development on the grounds.

Callahan said he anticipated it could take as long as two years for the sale to close. Rockingham currently simulcasts Thoroughbred, harness, and greyhound tracks and operates a charitable poker room, but neither license can be included in the real estate transaction.